We ended our summer reading with books that were familiar, hilarious, and educational.
Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary
Being a child of the 80's and 90's meant that I was quite adept at using the "record" button on the VCR. Anytime there was something good on TV, I would stick in a blank VHS, record the show or movie, and then carefully label the outside (and the box). Some people probably only recorded shows that they were going to miss, but I recorded anything I thought I might want to rewatch at some point. I could usually fit three movies or anywhere from six to twelve shows on one video, and it was a very economical way to stock up on my favorites (although, since we only had an antenna, we only got a few channels, and the quality was usually lacking.)
One favorite (and I think my mom actually recorded it when I was still quite young) was the made-for-TV series about Ramona Quimby. Did anyone else watch these? I believe it only ran for one season with ten episodes, but I got a lot of mileage out of those few episodes because I watched them so many times.
I couldn't help but think about that old TV series while we were reading Ramona Quimby, Age 8 because almost all of the episodes were based on chapters from this book. There was the egg-cracking fiasco where Ramona accidentally cracks a raw egg, instead of a hard-boiled one, onto her head, and then she overhears Mrs. Whaley say, "What a nuisance!" There's the weirdly textured meat at dinner, which turns out to be cow's tongue, and Ramona and Beezus complain about it so much that Mr. Quimby tells them they can make dinner the next night. There's the fruit fly larvae in the blue oatmeal (a classroom experiment) and the stomach flu that strikes in the middle of school and the "meow meow" book report. There's Yard Ape and Mr. Quimby drawing his foot and the nice older gentleman who pays for their dinner.
I was kind of glad my kids hadn't seen the TV series because it followed the book so closely that that's literally all I could think about while we were reading it and I think it's nice when they can go into a story without any preconceived ideas, but at the same time, it was kind of nostalgic for me.
One of the things that makes these books so continually fantastic is just watching the way Ramona grows up. With each book, she becomes a little wiser and more mature. She focuses on other people (and worries about her mom's job, her dad's school, the faulty car etc.) while also becoming more aware of what people think about her (does Mrs. Whaley think she's a nuisance? is the whole class going to make fun of her because she threw up?). But her growing up happens in the most believable way possible, and she is still very much the Ramona that we've always loved.
Soon after we finished this book, and not on purpose at all, we had hard boiled eggs one night when we had breakfast for dinner. I wasn't even thinking about Ramona, but my kids were. Crack! Crack! Crack! All of them smashed their eggs onto their foreheads. Clark, who hadn't listened to any of the story, had no idea what was going on, but that didn't stop him from joining in. Who can resist cracking an egg on your head?!
The Twits by Roald Dahl
My mom and I have similar tastes on many different things, including books. However, those tastes do not cross at the point of Roald Dahl. She read James and the Giant Peach to my siblings and me when we were little, and that was enough for her. She finds him bizarre and strange and maybe even a little offensive. I find him bizarre and strange too but also incredibly funny, witty, and creative. And that makes all the difference.
I couldn't help but think of my mom when we started in on the Twits because it basically takes everything she doesn't like about Roald Dahl and condenses it into one 76-page story.
First, you have Mr. and Mrs. Twit--the most despicable and disgusting couple you ever met, not to mention the rudest, too. They play nasty tricks on each other: spontaneous ones, like Mrs. Twit dropping her glass eye in Mr. Twit's coffee, and also carefully calculated ones, like Mr. Twit adding about an 1/8 of an inch to the bottom of Mrs. Twit's walking stick every night so that she'll slowly be convinced that she's shrinking. I'm pretty sure my mom would be horrified to read about such a mean, abusive couple, especially in a children's novel, but my kids and I laughed our way through it. They're just so ridiculous and the perfect villains because they literally have zero redeeming qualities.
But if the sheer nastiness of the Twits didn't turn her off, the next part most certainly would. Besides being awful to each other, Mr. and Mrs. Twit happen to have four monkeys they've been training for an upside down circus. It's a terrible life, as you might imagine, and eventually the monkeys decide they've had enough. They band together with the Roly-Poly Bird and the other birds who Mr. Twit likes to catch with his Hugtight sticky glue so he can eat them in stew. They pull off the most elaborate trick to date, one that puts Mr. and Mrs. Twit's own tricks to shame. (And, spoiler: it works.)
The thing about this trick is it's kind of out there--like, there's no way you would ever do such a thing, and even if you did, it would never work. And that's the other reason my mom wouldn't like this book. Even though the evil Twits get their just reward, it's all just a little too strange and morbid and unrealistic.
But that's exactly why I loved it. I mean, who can pull off something this bizarre and make it absolutely hilarious and entertaining at the same time? Only Roald Dahl.
Aaron read this book last year on his own and had been begging me to read it ever since. I'm so glad we did, but I'll be sure to tell my mom she can skip it.
Mathematicians Are People, Too by Luetta and Wilbert Reimer
Last summer we read the third volume in the Stories of the World series for one of our summer goals. We made a gigantic timeline out of the events we read about, and it ended up being one of the highlights of our summer, but it was also a pretty ambitious goal given its length and the amount of time we had. We really had to pace ourselves and keep on top of our reading to get through the whole thing in three months.
This year, I wanted to have another history-related goal, but I wasn't feeling quite up to tackling such a daunting book, so we went with Mathematicians Are People, Too instead. Comprised of fifteen chapters, each one focuses on the life of a different famous mathematician. Some of these I'd heard of, like Archimedes and Isaac Newton, but many were completely new, and I was always so intrigued by these unknown mathematicians who did so much to move the study of mathematics forward. In fact, some of them contributed so much that I kind of couldn't believe I didn't know about them (maybe if I'd been a math major, I would have).
One of these was Sophie Germain. As a woman mathematician in the early nineteenth century, she was up against almost insurmountable obstacles. No one thought a woman could, or should, be doing math. In fact, it was so impossible that she took on a pseudonym, Monsieur LeBlanc, so that she could correspond with other mathematicians without having to overcome the gender obstacle. She was a gifted mathematician and made great strides on the law of vibrating elastic surfaces. To their credit, two of the most famous mathematicians at the time, Joseph Lagrange and Carl Gauss (who also have their own chapters in this book) were quite accepting of Sophie when she turned out to be a woman and collaborated with her on many things.
Other stories were incredibly exciting . . . and tragic. One mathematician, Evariste Galois, died at the tender age of twenty because he was forced into a duel over a young woman he didn't even care about. He lost. In his short life, he not only made important strides in algebra, number theory, and group theory, but he was also a political activist and ended up in jail twice for being a little too outspoken. Can you imagine what he might have accomplished if he'd had the chance to live an average-length life?
I liked the length of the chapters (i.e., not too long) and that they were filled with both memorable stories and important information about each person's life. My one complaint is that sometimes the dialogue at the beginning of each chapter seemed a little contrived and inauthentic. If you can get past that, and I could, it's a book well worth sharing with your kids, and I'm glad that there's a second volume of stories. Maybe for next summer . . .
Have you read any of these books with your kids? What's your opinion on the Ramona series and Roald Dahl's books? Please share in the comments!